Stains, Dyes and Glazes

by Alan Noel
Professional Wood Finisher

In virtually every class I have taught over the years I've made it a point to get the ball rolling with a brief discussion of the subject at hand followed with a general finishing question and answer session. Without fail the two questions that always come up during these discussions are "What are the differences between dyes, stains and glazes, and how and when are each of them used?".

Although these materials and their uses may seem confusing, here are a few tips that will help to clear things up.

  1. Dyes are always transparent when in solution. Hold a bottle of Coca Cola up to the sun and you will see what we call Coca Cola Mahogany. A very nice reddish brown dye that is a traditional color for mahogany furniture. Dyes contain no binder and have to be top coated.
  2. Stains always have to be stirred while in use because they contain solid pigments that settle to the bottom after a short time. Basically a thin paint. Sometimes a dye will be added and these are called dye stains. Still, if pigment is in the can consider it a stain.
  3. Stains contain a binder, usually a thin oil-based varnish to lock in the color and to allow multiple coats without lifting previous coats of stain.
  4. Glazes are virtually the same as stains but they contain a lot more pigment with a lot less binder or no binder at all and are usually layered between coats of finish. This makes glazes a little harder to use because they have to be top coated without being disturbed. A spray can of lacquer sealer or shellac will do the trick to lock them in.
  5. Glazes add depth to a finish and also highlight carvings and lines and other decorative elements of a piece.
  6. An enthusiastic finisher or hobbyist can combine any and all of these products for a vast array of interesting finishes and techniques.

Visiting Atlanta? Attend one of Alan's upcoming highly informative Highland Woodworking wood finishing seminars:

French Polish Workshop , September 11, 2010

Finishing the Finish , October 6, 2010

Antiques Show and Tell , October 9, 2010

French Polish Workshop , October 13, 2010

Antique Restoration , October 23 & 24, 2010

Spray Finishing , November 6, 2010

Antiques Show and Tell , November 13, 2010

French Polish Workshop , November 17, 2010

Finishing the Finish , December 15, 2010

Visit Highland Woodworking's Online
Wood Finishing Supplies Department

Alan can be reached directly via email c/o Alan Noel Furniture Refinishing at .

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